October 18, 2022
Every two years, a large class of “freshman” lawmakers arrives in Washington, D.C. to be sworn-in for a new session of Congress. Over the last decade, each election cycle has generated a turnover rate of close to 20%, as a result of congressional retirements, primary upsets, and newly drawn districts.
The influence of freshman policymakers cannot be understated. In the current 117th Congress, 84 lawmakers are serving in their first term. That’s nearly one-sixth of Congress. Nine members of the U.S. Senate are freshman, in a chamber where a single member has the power to make or break what bills could be sent to the President as future laws.
It is rare that these newly elected policymakers are well-versed in the details of policies that will have serious implications for millions of Americans and U.S. and global industries alike. After Election Day, lawmakers move quickly to hire the right staff and get up to speed on the issues that they will debate and potentially vote on in Congress.
That window – between Election Day and the early months of a new legislative session – presents a huge opportunity for education. Certainly, lobbyists, think tanks, and policy experts in Washington will have a significant role in educating new Members of Congress and influencing opinion.
But the most persuasive messengers on key industry issues aren’t actually in DC. They’re back home in the states and districts where members-elect have just spent months on the campaign trail.
The backgrounds of freshman policymakers, before they ran for office, tell you a lot about who influences them back home. Most elected officials, prior to politics, had a career. They were farmers, lawyers, or doctors. Many are parents and have kids. About one in five lawmakers in Congress served or still serves in the U.S. Armed Forces. In the current Congress, 75 lawmakers were small business owners. In fact, 40 percent of them cite business experience prior to running for office.
Between the two political parties, we also see certain trends in the careers lawmakers held before Congress. Many Republicans have prior experience in medicine, real estate, and farming. For Democratic lawmakers, previous fields often include teaching, non-profits, and unions.
It’s no surprise, then, that the professions and life experiences of lawmakers before they arrive in Washington often correlate with what committees they land on, the policy issues they take an interest in, the legislation they sponsor – and, ultimately, how they vote.
This creates an opening for any industry looking to engage Congress. Historically, early engagement with freshman policymakers delivers long-term industry allies in positions of influence on Capitol Hill. Even after a couple of years in Congress, policymakers can move into leadership positions and receive coveted committee assignments.
Look no further than U.S. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, who won her first race to represent the Hawkeye State in 2014. Now, she serves as chair of the Republican Policy Committee, the fourth-ranking position among Senate Republicans. Ernst is also the leading Republican on the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee. And she’s earned a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, giving the Iowan a key voice on the Farm Bill and other national agricultural and food issues.
The most successful corporate public affairs strategies embrace the opportunity to make policymakers champions of a cause. Every policymaker is motivated by voters who reflect their home district, who reflect their political values, and who carry a persuasive story that lawmakers can relate to.
That said, champions and allies on Capitol Hill are not cultivated overnight. Moving quickly to engage freshman policymakers is essential to getting ahead of potential opponents.
No matter what industry you come from, freshman Members of Congress are looking for education from people they trust. And most often, those trusted messengers are folks back home. The key to success is early engagement by the people, leaders, and communities who represent that industry story or industry cause – and empowering them to become effective educators and advocates after Election Day.